Heroes Return Blog – Stories from Second World War veterans’ trips

Ian Forsyth’s story…

Among veterans who have returned to the Normandy battlefields with Heroes Return is Ian Forsyth, 85, from Hamilton, Scotland.

“In war you witness first-hand the depths to which humanity can sink”

A fresh-faced 17-year-old when he joined up in 1941, Ian Forsyth trained as a wireless operator with the 19th Hussars. On board a Churchill tank, he was on reconnaissance with the 11th Armoured Division that landed in Normandy and fought in France, Belgium and the Netherlands and over the Rhine into Germany.

Three of Ian’s own tanks were destroyed and he lost many comrades and friends. While he escaped serious injury, the mental scars remain. A heart-wrenching encounter dramatically brought home the full horror of the war – the day Ian arrived at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

“It was early April 1945 and our division had stopped near to the villages of Bergen and Belsen. We’d seen a lot of German activity in the immediate area, with a great many vehicles and people on the move. After two or three hours we were given the go-ahead to progress the three miles up the road.

“The first thing that hit you was the stench; an awful greasy smell. We were completely unprepared for what we found. At this time the camp was still under German control and they had a garrison inside with guards standing right in front of us. As we arrived, there were high-level discussions going on about surrender.”

Bergen-Belsen had started out as a prisoner-of-war camp and by 1945 housed around 60,000 people.

There were no gas chambers at Belsen; this was a starvation camp. Prisoners were slowly robbed of their lives, their bodies incinerated to discard the evidence.

In the months before liberation, thousands of Jews from other camps had been re-housed at Belsen as the German front collapsed. Food supplies were low and conditions appalling. There was no running water, and typhus and cholera were pandemic. It was partly for this reason that the Germans agreed to surrender.

In the following weeks, about 10,000 people were buried in mass graves, and shocked audiences saw the footage in cinemas around the world.

“When you saw the people inside you wanted to help but we had been ordered not to,” says Ian. “We would have fed those poor souls, but we learned later that would most likely have killed them.

“There were people lying down and at that time it didn’t even occur to me that they might not be alive.

The people who had survived would just stare out at you dressed in their striped clothes.

“In war you witness first-hand the depths to which humanity can sink. I was thunderstruck by what I saw – it was the first time that I realised exactly why we were fighting the war. On that day, I saw something which I did not believe could have been true.

“When we passed nearby villages after we left Belsen, we tried to find out more about how this could be allowed to happen, but people said they knew nothing, which was impossible.

“That day changed me forever. I will never forget what happened there and the sights that I saw can still make me weep.”

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Thank you Ian for writing this .
I’ve found it having searched you, after seeing you on television.
My grandfather was in the first British troop to liberate Belsen. It’s fantastic to see one of his comrades talking about the atrocities, as it was never talked about whilst he was alive in our family or with his army pals . We have photographic evidence as he took a camera and diary in with him which we will cherish. I’d love to go over to stand in his footsteps where he took the photos. One day I will get there to pay tribute to grandpa the prisoners and all the other troops, that were there helping to liberate in these dark times.

Comment by Andrew Hudson

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